For the healing of a nation: trauma, grief, keys to wholeness

By The Rev. Dr. W. Kenneth Williams

In the early 1990s, extending my role as a volunteer chaplain with the Brighton fire and police departments, Rochester, N.Y., I was asked to train in critical incident stress management (CISM), a relatively new initiative for firefighters, police officers and emergency medical services responders. CISM is an intervention protocol to help responders deal with the wide range of stressors and emotions that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The training in Toronto included chaplains from the Canadian armed forces who were to be deployed by NATO to the Balkans, then an active war zone. I remember thinking that I would never deal with the types of trauma and issues that my trainee colleagues would face. I was wrong. The shadow of the falling twin towers had altered mindsets for emergency responders, but no broadened consciousness of danger would prepare for the events of Christmas Eve 2012.

Early that morning, William Spengler killed his sister, set her house on fire, called 911 and, with his Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, took position on a berm overlooking the house. As the first responders from the West Webster Fire Department arrived, Spengler took aim, killing firefighters Mike Chipperini and Tomasz Kaczowka and wounding two others before turning the gun on himself. Neighboring departments and branches of emergency services experienced the West Webster tragedy vicariously. Questions emerged that had never before been asked: How do we defend against the threat of ambush? Should responders wear bullet-proof vests or guns be put on fire trucks?

Trauma shakes the very foundations of life. Without intervention, the effects of trauma will endure and grow. The unspeakable violence of that Christmas Eve has too many recent corollaries in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Cleveland. School shootings (Newtown, Blacksburg, Marysville) and episodes of domestic terrorism (San Bernardino, Charleston, Overland Park) have only intensified our collective anxiety. Violence is no longer considered episodic but epidemic — no longer distant and rare but close and commonplace.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, our society has evidenced growing generalized anxiety about global and local threats. With each additional incident of violence, with each death, with each gun shot, anxiety deepens and becomes more heavily nuanced. Reactivity morphs into suspicion. Suspicion creates tensions and raises the sense of danger. It is dangerous to be a police officer. It is dangerous to be black. It is dangerous to be gay, Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, an immigrant. It is, then, dangerous to participate in routines of daily living.

Defensiveness increases the divide. Polarities get established. “Black Lives Matter” is countered with “Blue Lives Matter.” The easy availability of guns adds to prevailing tensions. Police officers speak of being “outgunned,” leading to a chronic sense of threat and, consequently, to a level of reactivity that can override training.

We are a nation suffering from emotional attachment to traumatic anxiety. And we are in grief. Anxiety and grief stream from the same source — loss. The attack on the World Trade Center resulted in our loss of domestic insulation from global conflicts. Persistent clashes between police and African-American communities yield loss of trust in civil authority. The politics of illegal immigration and cultural diversity reveal a loss of social cohesion and, therefore, a loss of a common national identity. Income inequality and increased educational requirements for employment often result in economic despair. Legislative gridlock in Congress and in state assemblies, especially on matters of gun control, contributes to a sense that leadership has been disempowered and government is inept. The sharp polarities between candidates, dualistic thinking and blame that characterize the 2016 presidential campaigns reflect the anxiety and grief of the general populace, which, in turn, stems directly from the experience of threat and loss.

The path to a healthier self and a more tranquil nation can move through the same healing stages as post-trauma interventions such as CISM, which is aimed at regaining clarity of mind, reestablishing a sense of identity and purpose, and moving forward with courage and wisdom. These goals are accomplished through peer conversations about common trauma, its affect on thinking and behavior, and the resources needed to be effective in the future. Specialists in effective grieving use descriptors similar to the goals of CISM.

My personal experience with grief has taught me three keys to effective grieving. The first is self-awareness. I know what my feelings are. I can name them. I explore my biases and what they mean. I pay attention to the ebb and flow of my grief and know what triggers deepen sorrow. I accept that with time, patience and courage, grief will accomplish its healing purpose.

The second key extends from awareness of grief’s higher purpose. Because we cannot grieve without first loving, gratitude can be summoned in the midst of grief. Love for a person has parallels in love of community, love of place, love of country. That love can bind up the broken and bridge emotional gaps. Realizing that folks very different from us have the same object of love can bring forth gratitude that is stronger than grief.

The third key is mutual support. Just as self-awareness is a statement of personal responsibility and maturity, so mutuality helps the grieving to forge new bonds in life and community. One can remain fully aware of the power of loss and, at the same time, regain personal power through connections with neighbors, friends, colleagues and even strangers. When we receive support from a wide range of sources, we are more easily freed from dualistic thinking.

Recently, basketball legend Michael Jordan made substantial financial contributions to both the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and to the Institute of Community and Police Relations, a reminder that healing in a community requires the efforts of all stakeholders. When persons and groups that once blamed each other discover mutuality, an immense sense of freedom is released.

The CISM model and others like it guide participants through conversations about the effects of trauma, the images of grief that are sealed in memory for instant recall, and the fears and anxieties that are affixed, unconsciously, to the traumatic event, allowing participants to manage their anxieties, develop a clearer sense of identity, purpose and hope for the future. Can some form of this model be applied to a whole society? Could congregations of all faiths, with their experience with and rituals for grief care, become interventionists for the post-trauma grief of an entire nation? This infrastructure for a national conversation exists, and it would be well worth the effort to hold community debriefing sessions across the country that embrace maturity, trusted mutuality and a common sense of mission and purpose. It could truly reflect E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”), with neighbors becoming partners in the pursuit of a world free of violence.

The Rev. Dr. W. Kenneth Williams is chaplain emeritus, Brighton fire and police departments, Rochester, N.Y.